Best-, Worst-Case Scenarios for a New England Patriots Playoff Run

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Best-, Worst-Case Scenarios for a New England Patriots Playoff Run
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The New England Patriots can clinch the AFC East with a win over the Miami Dolphins this weekend as well as take over the top seed in the AFC.

With the Denver Broncos' loss to the San Diego Chargers, the Pats are now in the driver's seat for home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. That's pretty astounding when you consider the injuries they've overcome.

But with three games still to play, and the Broncos and Cincinnati Bengals just a game behind them, the Pats' road to the Super Bowl is still far from set.

Denver's remaining slate of two road games in Houston and Oakland isn't exactly daunting, and the Pats will have little margin for error.

Still, it's not the difference between an outdoor game and a dome game now, and in cold weather, Tom Brady might be the better quarterback whether it's in Foxborough or Denver.

John Grieshop/Getty Images
The Bengals knocked off the Pats 13-6.

The Bengals travel to Pittsburgh, then host the Vikings and the Ravens to finish their season. There could be a loss in there for them, but they still hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over New England.

But their win over the Pats was in Week 5, when the Pats offense was still very much a work in progress. The offense is far better now, even without Rob Gronkowski, but the Bengals have the kind of defense that can give any offense a problem.

The rest of the AFC field is almost set, with either the Dolphins or Ravens most likely to land in the sixth seed. The Bengals, Indianapolis Colts and the Kansas City Chiefs are near locks for the other spots.

Of those three, the up-and-down Colts are the best matchup, especially playing outdoors in New England.

Should the Patriots fall to the third seed, it would likely result in a Wild Card Round rematch with either the Ravens or Dolphins, two teams they'll have just recently played.

Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Tom Brady is once again gunning for the top seed in the AFC.

That kind of familiarity will help, but for a banged-up squad like the Pats, losing a first-round bye could be an early death sentence—if not in the Wild Card Round, definitely on the road in Cincinnati or Denver in the divisional round.

There's no question, the best-case scenario for the Patriots is to win out and seal the No. 1 seed, but getting the bye is vital. That could depend on the Bengals losing again if the Pats slip up.

At home, you have to like New England's chances, and even if it has to travel to Denver or Cincinnati, it should put up a good fight and could pull either upset. 

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

As for a potential Super Bowl matchup, it's hard to predict who might come out of the NFC, but the Pats offense did light up the Seahawks in Seattle in 2012 and really should've beat them in that game if not for their inexperienced back end on defense.

Can this edition of the Pats do the same? It's possible.

We've seen the Pats come back against the New Orleans Saints this year and post a furious comeback against the San Francisco 49ers last year, although they ultimately fell short.

Ultimately, it doesn't really matter who the Pats face in the playoffs. It will be about the Patriots putting together their best football of the year. If they do that, they can beat any team in the NFL anywhere.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Could this be the first AFC Championship rematch between Brady and Manning since 2006?

But the Pats have struggled to put together a full 60 minutes of football ever since their bye week, and falling behind well into the second half of a playoff game will not be a recipe for success.

Miracle wins are rare. They're even rarer in the playoffs.

The Pats are on a slippery slope. If they lose a single game, they could easily slip all the way to the third seed and have to see the physical Dolphins or Ravens right off the bat.

If their offense and defense start to click for an entire game, you have to like the Patriots' chances, but they must starting clicking Sunday in Miami and not stop until February in New Jersey.

Mike Dussault is a Patriots Featured Columnist who also writes and edits 

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